Faraz Tamboli

Faraz Tamboli is an altruist.

His concern for others has fueled a desire to be a biomedical engineer when he grows up, and it led the 12-year-old Plainsboro resident to introduce an innovation that made him a finalist in 3M’s national Young Scientist Challenge this year.

The annual competition, which is sponsored by 3M and Discovery Education, invited students in grades 5-8 to submit a 1-2 minute video describing a unique solution to an everyday problem for the chance to win $25,000 and an exclusive 3M mentorship.

“I was thinking of ideas for helping the deaf and aphonic (people) since my father first told me this story about a kid who was aphonic named Mona in my father’s second grade,” Tamboli said.

Mona kept trying to play with Tamboli’s dad, but he was unable to understand him.

“It was really sad,” he said. “Mona couldn’t play with them, so I thought, ‘Why don’t I fix this story?’ I came up with this idea of making a talk-motion device that translates sign language gestures into voice and voice into sign language gestures.”

Tamboli has been finalizing his TalkMotion device for deaf and aphonic (the inability to produce spoken sound) children throughout the summer. It is designed to make it possible for deaf and aphonic children to communicate with hearing persons and vice versa.

“I didn’t have any idea at first,” Tamboli said. “I thought, ‘How do I make something that would allow the deaf and aphonic to talk to people who are able and normal?’ Not many people know sign language. Their world is so limited that not a lot of people can talk to them, only their family and friends.”

He said that for the project, he had to figure out machine learning, which was a little hard for him to understand at first.

“I take sign language gestures, and then I translate them into voice by recording them over a gesture detector and making my device learn the gesture by feeding it multiple inputs of the same gesture and making the device process that gesture and sending it out in voice,” he said.

He has programmed nine basic gestures so far and is working to add more to TalkMotion. The machine learning process can be time-consuming, but is important to make the device fully functional.

“To make sure the machine learns the gesture, I have to do the gesture multiple times and in different ways so whatever way the person does a gesture, the device will recognize the gesture and then it send it out and it’ll be clear,” Tamboli explained. “I had to do 100 gestures of the same type of word. If I did the gesture of ‘play’ I had to do it 100 times and pick a program to do the voice for ‘play’ and connect those two parts.”

He decided to submit TalkMotion to the 3M contest, and found out at the end of June that he had been named one of 10 finalists nationwide. According to the competition website, the finalists are “chosen for their passion for science, spirit of innovation and ingenuity and effective communication skills.”

“I didn’t really expect that I was going to be a finalist,” Tamboli said. “I was just trying to make my idea and finalize my idea. When I heard, I went crazy because it was like a dream come true.”

Tamboli found out about the competition from his older sister, who had also entered it when she was in middle school. The contest It is open to students in grades 5-8.

This is the 12th year of the competition, and the 10 finalists traveled to the 3M Innovation Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, for the final competition, which took place on Oct. 28-29. The grand prize winner was Kara Fan of San Diego, California. She formulated a nano particle liquid bandage to replace the use of antibiotics and help reduce the development of super bugs due to overuse of antibiotics.

“I’m actually really looking forward to the 3M Innovation Center and meeting all the other finalist,” Tamboli said before the finals. “Especially my 3M mentor who has guided me throughout this process.”

Tesha Alston, senior quality engineer in the Biopharmaceutical Purification Business, Separation and Purification Sciences Division at 3M, was paired with Tamboli. They speak once a week for 30 minutes.

“Faraz is an exceptionally gifted student, far beyond his age,” Alston said. “I have been inspired by his inner drive to investigate, problem-solve and innovate solutions. Not only is he smart but he has an outgoing personality and a genuine heart to improve society through his TalkMotion invention.”

Finalists worked with 3M scientists as part of a mentorship program to develop their innovation. Alston supported Tamboli’s video blogs and offered suggestions as he worked to bring TalkMotion device to life.

“I support Faraz by guiding him through the scientific method, answering questions and problem solving,” Alston said. “I provide feedback on his ideas as he creates the solutions. Most importantly, I encourage and support him in his scientific journey.”

Tamboli has already experienced success in science-based competition. He won the Master Programmer Award with Cheeta Bots at the 2015 Junior First Lego League World Festival Expo in St. Louis, Missouri.

He says has grown significantly from his experiences in the 3M competition, and has evolved TalkMotion from its original concept. He has developed a more effective device.

“I changed my invention from a phone, because I realized a phone wasn’t strong enough to handle this whole program and handle my gesture detector, which will scan the gestures,” he said. “I had a tablet connected to a gesture detector, which when you do the gestures over the gesture detector, the tablet will learn from that gesture and the tablet will play it out as a voice.”

He added that he is going to translate voice into sign language using speech recognition. “The reason I’m doing that is because it can help benefit the deaf. I don’t want to leave anyone behind. I want the deaf to understand others,” he said. “So what happens is a person starts talking and it takes those words and translates them into images of sign language gestures being done on the screen. The deaf can look at the gestures and understand them.”

Tamboli is hopeful that his device will have real world practicality and has thought about how he would market and distribute it to the deaf and aphonic community.

“This is a viable solution to bridge the communication gap between the hearing and deaf/aphonic community,” Alston said. “I personally have friends who are deaf, and Faraz’s invention will allow people to be actively immersed in the deaf culture without the fear of not knowing sign language.”

Tamboli is hoping that TalkMotion is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to helping others. He was born with atrial septal defect—a hole in the wall between the two upper chambers of his heart, and he will a procedure done to repair it next year.

Left alone, the defect could lead to headaches, stomach aches, an enlarged heart and decreased energy in the future. Tamboli said he is thankful that he won’t need open heart surgery thanks to the Septal Occluder, an invention that uses a tube inserted through the groin to patch the heart. He’d like to create more such innovations as a biomedical engineer some day.

“As a patient, I’ve experienced how desperately my parents have searched for better and less invasive options to treat my condition,” Tamboli said. “I hope to give other people who have similar conditions much better options.”

When he’s not working on innovations, Tamboli enjoys listening to music and he sings in a boys’ choir. He is in his first semester of seventh grade at Community Middle School. Not surprisingly, he’s most looking forward to math and science.